Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Belated Behan: Brendan Behan and the Cultural Politics of Memory

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Belated Behan: Brendan Behan and the Cultural Politics of Memory

Article excerpt

ON the evening of 30 November 1939, Brendan Behan went to his family home, 70 Kildare Road in Dublin, and packed a suitcase. The suitcase contained chlorate of potash and paraffin wax, which was mixed with gelignite to form an explosive compound. It also contained ampoules of sulfuric acid, which, when inserted into wax-filled condoms, would corrode and ignite the explosives. While Behan packed his case, his tense, disapproving family gathered around his father at the fireside, who was reading aloud from a favorite book of Behan's childhood, Dickens's The Pickwick Papers. Behan left the house with familiar tales of Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Snodgrass, and Mr. Winkle ringing in his ears. He arrived in Liverpool the following morning, where he went to a lodging house and began to prepare his bombs. He was arrested that afternoon by Liverpool detectives before he could carry out his plans. According to different accounts, he was preparing to bomb either British navy ships at Cammell Lairds dock-yards or a department store in the center of Liverpool.

Almost twenty years later, on 3 April 1959, Behan sat in the back of a car being driven around Paris by a chauffeur, on the occasion of the run of his play The Hostage, representing Great Britain in the Theatre de Nations festival. Behan noticed that the Union Jack was flying on one side of the car. He leaned forward to the driver and told him that if he stuck another Union Jack on the other side, he might drum up a bit more trade for the play.

I begin with these two anecdotes from Brendan Behan's life because of the narratives that seem to resonate between them--narratives of nationalism and betrayal, of commitment and compromise, of militancy and recalcitrance, and indeed of violence and writing. The critical reputation of Behan's writings is conventionally determined by the oppositions and hierarchies suggested by these anecdotes: that Behan was a Republican who deserted his political commitments for the attractions of literary fame in England; that he turned from cultural nationalism to cultural anomie; that he allowed his writings to become the vehicles of stage-Irish amusements for the metropolitan audiences of London's West End. (1) In this article, I argue for an alternative conception of Behan's work, in which these oppositions and hierarchies are inverted, in which writing enabled Behan to articulate dissident and critical perspectives on cultural nationalism in mid-century Ireland. I will argue that Behan's writings participate in the emergence of revisionist and postcolonial critiques of modern nationalism, even, and especially, at the point at which these literary productions are indebted to nationalist discourses and iconographies. This is the case in each of Behan's major writings, as it is the case in his lesser known works. I draw largely on his weekly column for The Irish Press, to which he contributed from 1954 to 1956, when for the first time in his writing career and at a critical moment in the nation's literary history Behan had access to a nationwide Irish audience.

There is, then, an alternative narrative between the two moments of Behan's life sketched above that I want to pursue in the course of this essay, a narrative that has both particular pertinence for Behan's writings, and general significance for the relationship between literature and nationalism. My argument follows that of Simon During in an essay published initially in Homi Bhabha's 1990 collection, Nation and Narration. There During contends that literature acts "as other to, or resistance against" discourses of nationalism, (2) constructing his argument as a sympathetic revision of Edward Said's notion that literature "belongs to, gains coherence from, and in a sense emanates out of, the concepts of nation, nationality and even of race." (3) Although During accepts that literature can and frequently does function in ways that legitimize national identities and indeed the nation-state, he argues that literature exceeds the discursive and representational demands of nationalism and belongs more closely to a "civil imaginary" than the cultural constructions of nationalism. …

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